Like his predecessors, Xi Jinping has coined political terms to display visionary leadership. The evolution of these phrases provides a window into how political concepts are formed within the Party and how they are tested among the Public.

“One is a point, two is a line, three is plane, four will do all fine!” raps a young man while a cartoon hand counts along. A cartoon girl with black hair and a red dress appears in the spotlight. “What are these four?“ she asks.

The Chinese answer to Kanye West or Jay Z they are not. The awkward-sounding rap song is official China’s attempt to spread President Xi Jinping’s theory of the “four comprehensives” (四个全面). “One is just a point, two can form a line, three become a plane, four will do all fine!”, goes the Chorus.

Communicating political concepts with more or less catchy phrases has long been a part of China’s political culture. For a Chinese leader, enshrining his core phrase in the party constitution means securing his political heritage.

Xi Jinping aligns with this trend, but compared to his predecessors, he seems to put even more effort into shaping and re-shaping the content of his concepts and political slogans and to communicate them to the public. This relates to his wider effort to strengthen ideological control in the wake of growing economic difficulties as well as cynicism and dissent among political elites and society.

These concepts should not mainly be seen as Xi’s personally-endorsed propaganda. As part of the policy process, they have three core functions:

  1. A framework to negotiate different (ideological) viewpoints among the leadership and occasionally with the public
  2. Building blocs for Xi’s quest to create a Chinese alternative to “Western values”
  3. A basis for China’s claim for being respected as leading global power

China’s dream is not the American dream

Xi Jinping introduced the “China dream” (中国梦) as one of his core political phrases right after he became the General Secretary of the CCP in November 2012. Although the wording and related ideas are not totally new, Xi propagated the “China dream” as his central vision and goal of his leadership.

Despite his strong emphasis on the term, Xi did not seem sure how to define the “China dream” – or which definition would be acceptable within the elite. In the beginning of 2013, the Chinese Academy of Social Science and the Ministry of Education issued a list of research projects related to the “China dream”. Two months later, at the concluding session of the annual National People’s Congress, Xi explained that the “China dream” was not based on “Western” ideas, but on a “Chinese way”, a “Chinese spirit” and “Chinese powers” – the so-called “three musts” (三个必须).

The China dream was also characterised with the terms “strong and wealthy country, national revitalization, happiness of the people” – emphasising its collective and nationalistic nature and setting it apart from the “American dream,” which is commonly associated with individual happiness, material well-being and a Western lifestyle. Interestingly, while “Chinese dream” and “China dream” were initially used in official English translations, the “China dream” version has recently become the dominant one. 

The official “China dream” PR took an interesting and important turn in autumn 2014: While the term had previously been linked to cultural concepts and Confucian traditions, the emphasis of the definition now shifted to Marxism. The ideological re-interpretation of the term suggests the influence of orthodox leftists inside the CCP.    

Our shared destiny is win-win

While the “China dream” was supposed to unite the nation around a collective aspiration, Xi obviously felt the need of creating an equivalent in the foreign policy realm. For this purpose, he adopted the phrase “community of shared destiny for all humankind” (人类命运共同体). The phrase originates from a White Paper on “China’s peaceful development” published in September 2011, one year ahead of Xi’s acquisition of power.

The original White Paper had used the phrase to emphasise the need for global governance and a just world order. It was often used to evoke a common vision and a moral alliance with other Asian neighbours or other countries of the global South – but never with major powers like the U.S. or Russia.

Under Xi, the term gradually lost its idealistic impetus. Especially with a view to his “One Belt, One Road” initiative to build a new trading route through Central Asia, Xi started explaining the concept mainly as a “win-win-situation” for China and its neighbours. The slogan implied that all sides would benefit from economic opportunities and technological development, but it applied much less to a vision for addressing common challenges such as climate change or terrorism.

The term underwent a similar transformation as the “new type of great power relations” (新型大国关系), a term Xi used to describe China’s relationship with the U.S. The term was initially interpreted as an offer by China to find common solutions to global problems. But increasingly, it became clear that for Xi, the term was mostly a metaphor for increasing China’s own status and influence.

Don’t throw away our money, idiot!

China’s netizens are generally unimpressed by the vague and ever-shifting content of the phrases promoted by the leadership. Rather than buying the “win-win” argument for China’s economic engagement in Central Asia, participants of chat rooms coined an ironic counter-phrase to describe their government’s efforts to build a new silk road: the term ”throw money diplomacy“ (撒币外交) suggests that China’s leadership is squandering public resources on superficial projects. And since “throw money around” 撒币 (sabi) sounds very similar to the word for “idiot”, 傻逼 (shabi), this type of diplomacy is also an “idiot’s diplomacy”.

The online debate on “throw money diplomacy” was not censored throughout 2015, suggesting that some forces within the elites wanted this debate to play out. Not only that, but official media took up the critique and started to defend the Chinese leadership by arguing that the governments in Tokyo and Washington followed the same approach and that China’s economic diplomacy fosters healthy global competition and actively shapes a newly emerging world order.

It is remarkable that public criticism framed into a witty counter phrase forced the Chinese leadership to defend and explain its own propaganda slogan. The episode is a reminder that political terms in China are not ready-to-use-concepts but visions in the making. Their definition and evolution is the result of a negotiation process within the leadership and with the public.

Engaging a sceptical public in a dialogue seems to be the hardest task for Xi’s propaganda officials who seem desperate to find new ways of communicating stodgy political concepts to a slogan-weary public. So be prepared for more rap Songs!